An anthrax outbreak in Bangladesh has infected more than 500 individuals since August 18th. The infections were acquired from eating or handling contaminated cattle. In one instance, a man purchased a cow which became ill a few days later. He brought the cow to a veterinarian where it was vaccinated against anthrax. This would have been protective against future infections if the cow survived, but it did not treat the current infection. The man slaughtered the cow when its condition deteriorated, and unknowingly fed the contaminated meat to over 40 families. Contaminated meat is also being sold in the market, which has caused cattle and livestock sales to be around 1/10 of the expected levels. Considering that around three quarters of the population rely at least partially on livestock for their livelihood, this outbreak is sure to take a heavy toll on the health of both the population and the economy.
More than a 250,000 animals have been vaccinated in the region, with a plan underway to vaccinate 500,000 more to help control the outbreak. It is also reported that the government has launched “a massive public awareness campaign to warn people against consuming infected beef and prevent cattle traders from inadvertently spreading the disease when disposing of infected animals.” The proper disposal of infected animals is extremely important since Bacillus anthracis spores can survive for decades in the soil, and a single dose of the anthrax vaccine is unlikely to be effective the following year. As I have reported before (see Anthrax Outbreak in Ugandan Hippopotamuses), the best method of disposal is incineration, but it is too expensive for most. Farmers are being told to bury their infected cattle carcasses deep underground, though this is also a burdensome task that some will be unlikely to perform. The chief technical officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that “some farmers are disposing of animals in rivers and lakes, which is very risky.” It is likely that we will see future anthrax outbreaks in Bangladesh, though hopefully their impact will be smaller due to increased awareness of this devastating disease.